the new E-400
E-400 with new compact 'blue-band' 14-42 ED zoom.
shall i compare thee to an om?
a lighthearted look
Olympus quietly introduced the E-400 at PhotoKina in late 2006. While everyone was anxiously waiting for news of the E-1 replacement the company announced what is probably the foundation for the E-System for the next few years. And whilst boasting a new 10MP sensor, the E-400 is more than just another 4/3rds machine. It is the future. In this tiny DSLR Olympus are trialing a new level of miniaturisation; every component has been scaled down in an effort to reach one of their design goals, that of a digital OM.
In a statement that both shocked and annoyed its followers, the company also announced the E-400 would only be available in Europe and would be specifically excluded from the home Japanese market and the strategically important US market. No satisfactory reason was given, but we were told that a new model based on the E-400 was already in late development and it would be this model that would be retailed throughout the world. There have been various rumours circulating about why the E-400 is limited to Europe, the most popular relating to the number of sensors being available. Personally I believe what Olympus hinted at; the E-400 would be trialed in Europe as a test-bed before the second wave in Spring 2007. It is very likely the E-410 with Live-View and possibly sensor based IS will be announced very soon.
It has been a long held ambition of the design section of the camera division to repeat the sucess of their finest designer, Yoshihisa Maitani, by producing a true digital OM series. So have they done it? Can the new machine take on the OM mantle?
This article is not a review of the new camera. I hope to do this later. All I propose to do here is look at the E-400 through OM tinted spectacles.
SIZE COMPARISON - BODIES:
I'm going to compare the E-400 with one of the most capable and popular semi-professional OM's ever made; the OM2n. (It just so happens to be my favourite OM too).
Let's take a look:
Notice the heights of the top plates are very similar, the E-400 being slightly higher. The prism area on the OM is clearly defined wheras on the E-400 it is larger and rounded but remember it is fitted with an on-board flash. Many OM users left the shoe 4 permanently attached to the 2n making it slightly taller than its modern day sibling.
Second view shows the E-400 is slightly thicker across the top plate than the 2n. Again the prism hump is obviously larger as it also accomodates the flash hot-shoe mount as well as the viewfinder exit pupil and dioptre adjustment not fitted to the 2n.
Third view shows the difference in width between the two. The E-400 is about 15mm less wide.
Fourth view underlines the 2n is 15mm wider. These views show that the new camera is overall about the same volume as the OM2n but is differently proportioned, as you'd expect. In the hand the E-400 feels smaller. The grip area falling to the users right hand is substantially less than (say) the E-500 but still not competely flat as in the 2n. Weight wise the E-400 is considerably lighter. Bulk wise the OM2n is less. Grip wise the OM2n is better as the area falling to the users left is slightly wider for the fingers, and the 'real estate' on the back of the 2n is uncluttered by controls. Texure wise the E-400 offers more rubbery grip for the fingers and the textured engineering plastic of the latest model feels nicer than cold and easily marked black coated metal of the 2n's top and bottom plate.
Mount a T20 flash on the OM2n and (aesthetically) it immediately loses out to its latter-day sibling and the E-400 wins by a large margin in handling terms. The demountable shoe was always a contentious early OM design feature; personally I disliked the look of the OM with shoe mounted as well as it causing damage to the prism area by over zealous mounting of larger flashes. For this reason alone I award this part of the comparison to the E-400.
SIZE COMPARISON - LENSES:
Since the advent of Zuiko Digital lenses much has been made of their size. The four-thirds philosophy is supposed to offer smaller and more compact lenses than other DSLR systems, especially full-frame. However, this does not seem the case. Many of the zooms appear to be larger than the 35mm equivalents, and some of the specialist lenses are huge. If a digital OM was indeed the design goal then some serious thought had to be applied to the lenses - the same way as Maitani did with all the OM Zuikos. The smallest Zuiko Digital to date is the much maligned ZD 17.5-45mm that was the kit lens with the UK version of the E-500 SE. But this is just a small ZD.
The E-400 has its own class of kit lenses, the new 'blue band' range that is available for separate purchase (unlike the ZD17.5-45). Its twin lens kit consists of the ZD 14-42mm and the ZD 40-150mm compacts. And they are certainly compact. They share the same barrel diameter and filter size and the new ZD 40-150mm is only 15mm longer than its kit companion. They are well specified too; the 14-42 is a 10 element in 8 group configuration with a maximum brightness range of f3.5-5.6. The 40-150mm is a 12 element in 9 group configuration with a maximum brightness range of f4.0-5.6. They both better their predecessors in relation to close focus capability. However, they are not high grade lenses; they are designed with several purposes; small, lightweight, compact and are ideal travel companions.
Let's have a look:
Comparing these lenses with anything from the OM range is going to be difficult. The 'standard' zoom (ZD 14-42) is equivalent to 28-84 and the nearest OM is the peculiar AF 28-85mm for the unpopular OM707 range. There is no OM equivalent to the ZD 40-150; this was poorly achieved in at least two zooms, the OMZ 28-48mm S with the OMZ 50-250 for the 50-150 bit! (The 50-250 Zoom is a rare lens).
When we see comparable cameras together it is very plain how much progress has been made. Olympus had a disastrous dalliance with Auto-Focus for many reasons, one being that Mr Maitani is said to have disliked the technology. (I suspect the Honeywell suit was more to blame!) That said the OM707 was most unsuccessful not because of the lenses but more due to the unreliable vertical shutter mechanism that was a departure for the company. Actually, the AF lenses were not bad; but note they are not designated OM or Zuiko, only 'Olympus Lens' appears on the side of the barrel.
There is no competition here whatsoever. The E-400 is simply better all round. Smaller, lighter, better specified and more capable.
Much as I'd like to sit down and compare the E-400 to the OM2n from a specification aspect, I suspect we all know the answer. Today's offering is more sophisticated by far. The OM2n was a fabulous camera for its time offering on Auto an aperture preferred metering system with a selectable manual (shutter preferred) mode; an elctro-magnetic controlled shutter for accuracy with a manual backup; ASA 25-1000; compensation +2 to -2; shutter range of several minutes through to 1/1000th second; Off the film metering; a world beating flash control system and of course the full OM range of lenses and accessories.
The only areas where the E-system cameras cannot compare is (1) an equivalent to OTF metering at the point of exposure: no doubt the designers will get round this in some way. We have taken a small step back by losing this facility. (2) No mirror lock-up: this is a serious omission in my opinion but if the camera is destined to be an entry level machine I can understand the thinking.
To counter these shortfalls I could offer the argument that the E-400 has the equivalent of an internal motor drive with its buffering facility, whereas the OM required either an external winder or a full blown motor drive. However, I'm not going to push the comaprison any further; they both take great photographs in the right hands. Personally, since going digital in 2000, I've hardly used any of my film caneras.
There's little I want to add except one major observation about the general aesthetics of the E-400 (and presumably all that follow). All the E-System predecessors suffered from a lens mount bias toward the users left. This was particularly noticeable on the E-500, to the point where it almost caused ugliness. While the E-400 has almost overcome this it still has a little way to go before it matches the ever so slight assymetrical look of the OM bodies. So, yes, I think within the confines of this article I can favourably compare the E-400 to an OM(2n) anyway.
However, from my personal point of view I haven't fallen for the E-400. For me it is too small and light with too little real estate to grab hold of. I miss a grip but can see how its inclusion would have spoiled the overall objective. I find the strap hangers a damn nuisance and I'm not keen on the eye relief. But I can see that it and its sibling will add hugely to Olympus' success.